Nicole thinks the world of college test prep is unjust. In the late 1990s, she was a program manager at a national tutoring chain. She coached preteens on how to pass the tests to get into exclusive prep schools and teenagers on how to achieve scores high enough to get accepted to the Ivy League.
“We’ve based a huge portion of our higher education system on an instrument that is eminently hackable,” said Nicole, who asked HuffPost to not use her last name to prevent the identification of her former employer. Many of the kids she tutored weren’t particularly smart, but after a few weeks of drills, she could boost their SAT scores by a few hundred points.
But now, with her own son nearing college age, she paid for him to take the PSAT so she would know if he needed extra help. Next year, she plans to enroll him in test-prep courses so he could practice taking the entrance exam and writing his essay.
“I feel trapped,” she said. She works for a nonprofit and her husband works in sales for a software company. They are comfortable. But still, she worries that if she doesn’t help her son get ahead, he won’t end up in the same position she has. “He’s a smart kid and no matter what he does, he’ll do well. But will he do well enough to get health insurance?”
Nicole is not the only American mother making this calculation. On Wednesday, the FBI announced 50 indictments in a criminal college-admissions scheme. Wealthy parents, including the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were accused of paying bribes to university officials and faking test results to ensure their children’s admission to elite colleges.
While the vast majority of families don’t go to such lengths, even parents at the lower tiers of the wealthy are anxious about their children’s futures ― and are willing to pay for test-prep, private tutors and college admissions consultants to give their children whatever advantage they can.
“It feels like you have to get your kid into this massive lottery to make it in American society,” Nicole said. “More people just accept it as part of what you have to do.”
It feels like you have to get your kid into this massive lottery to make it in American society.
Nicole, former program manager at a national tutoring chain
Some of the anxiety over college admissions comes from the fact that elite institutions are objectively more exclusive than they used to be. In 1941, Harvard accepted 1,092 students out of 1,182 applications. By 2018, the number of accepted students had doubled but the number of applications had risen to more than 42,000. Even in the last 10 years, most of America’s most selective schools have seen significant drops in their acceptance rates.
Then there are the increasing benefits of a college education. In 2018, nine out of 10 new jobs went to college graduates. Workers with university diplomas earn more and have lower unemployment rates. Despite its rapidly inflating cost, college is not only a worthwhile investment for most Americans, but a necessary one.
The combination of the increasing importance of a top-tier diploma and the decreasing likelihood of getting one is inspiring wealthier parents to take on extra spending to guarantee their children’s place in higher education.
“I’m on the phone all week with parents panicking about their child not doing well on a math test,” said Alexis White, the director of A-List Tutoring, a college consultancy in LA Though her clients run the gamut from upper-middle class to billionaires, she says the parents on the lower end of the wealth ladder are often more desperate to secure advantage for their kids.
“There’s a carnal panic inside every parent, regardless of how much access they have, that their child will not be successful in life,” she said. “A hundred times a week, I have to utter the phrase, ‘your kids will go where they are meant to go.’”
This increase in anxiety has, in mere decades, produced an industry to alleviate it. The test-prep sector was worth more than $25 billion in 2016. “Education consulting,” the industry with more intensive services and wealthier clientele, is worth an estimated $1.9 billion.
But the most important factor driving the college-prep arms race may simply be income inequality.
“The greatest degree of wealth stratification is within the one percent,” said Jeffrey Winters, a Northwestern University researcher who specializes in oligarchies. Parents at the low end of the top 1 percent earn around $420,000 per year.
That’s nearly 10 times wealthier than the average American, Winters said, but still almost 100 times less wealthy than members of the .01 percent. And because they may work for the same companies or their children may attend the same private schools, the lower-tier wealthy families are comparing themselves to people stratospherically farther up the income scale.
“You’re under pressure from the bottom and the top,” said Sarah, a mother and an executive at a think tank who asked HuffPost not to use her real name. “Some people get into Harvard because they’re crazy brilliant. Some people get in because their parents endow a building. Some get in because they come from a historically disadvantaged group and they get a leg up, as they should. But where does that leave my kid? The only route in is to become the closest thing to an ideal candidate.”
Even within the test prep industry, Sarah said, there is a hierarchy of wealth. Well-funded public schools may offer a few weekend test-prep courses to their students. Lower-tier wealthy families sign up their kids for evening courses or online SAT workshops. Middle-tier wealthy families hire private tutors. Top-tier wealthy parents hire coaches to work with them for years.
Sarah was middle tier. She hired a test-prep tutor for her kids their junior year of high school.
“I felt like I was behind, and I had to catch up,” she said. “Some of the other kids had been working with college consultants since middle school.”
Nicole, too, feels like she is falling behind the families with far more advantages than she can give her own children.
“The way our society is set up right now, with extreme haves and extreme have-nots, makes it really hard to do what’s right for your kids and still allow you to keep your soul,” she said. “I feel like kind of an asshole. I don’t want to be a part of perpetuating these systemic problems, but at the same time I’ve got a kid who’s heading out into the world in two years, and I’ve got to give him the tools to equip himself.”
Nicole is a homeowner with a pension and a steady job. She worries that if she doesn’t help him out, her son won’t have the same things.
“It’s not that we want to get him into Davos,” Nicole said. “We just want to get him where we are now.”